Political change is following Covid-19

The pandemic will have entrenched these strongmen indefinitely.”


Shahid Javed Burki April 13, 2020
Representational image. PHOTO: REUTERS

Political systems may change when the world is buffeted by major upheavals. This happened when European Communism died and the Soviet Union collapsed. These developments occurred because some scholars believed that it was the natural order of political systems to move towards Western-style liberal democracy. This was the thesis advanced by the American sociologist, Francis Fukuyama in his book, The End of History, which became an instant best-seller. However, the world did not move in the direction in which it would inevitably proceed. Even Fukuyama lost some of his early enthusiasm for Western systems. We are now passing through another world-changing event, the Covid-19 pandemic. What kind of impact this particular development is likely to have on political systems?

There are at least four areas of governance that are likely to be affected by the way governments around the globe are handling the Covid-19 crisis. They are: economic management, authoritarianism, federalism and multilateralism. Most of the changes are occurring in the countries around Pakistan’s borders and will have an influence on Pakistan. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Federalism owes its importance in the system of governance because of the success it had in creating the United States of America. There were 13 states at US’ founding and they did not trust one another. Many of them had little in common culturally, politically, economically and ethnographically. Federalism was James Madison’s solution to this diversity. States would come together by surrendering to a national political entity some of what they considered to be their natural rights. The arrangement they arrived at gave equal rights to unequal entities. Smaller states could play very important roles in governing the country that was being created.

Many states that came together did not agree to the mission state drafted by Thomas Jefferson who along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton was one of the three most important members of the group future historians would call the “Founding Founders”. Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all men are crated equal” with inherent rights. This couldn’t be accepted by the slave-owing gentry in the south. Representatives of South Carolina and Georgia refused to support the declaration until a passage condemning the slave trade as “cruel war against human nature itself” was removed. This prepared the ground for inequality in the US that continues to challenge governance in America and its states against the federal government. According to Donald Kettle, the author of the recent book, The Divided States of America, inequality increased every time the federal government took a hands-off approach.

That concept of federalism that a national government could govern in ways that don’t always agree to the interests of the established elites in all federating states is being tested in the way governments are managing Covid-19. Two conflicting approaches have emerged, one that factors in state rights and the other that has the federating units step aside and let the federal government take charge. Donald Trump, relying on the support of smaller and less-populated states, is not prepared to adopt a strong national policy. There is a clamour in New York and California for the federal government to step in and craft a national policy to distribute desperately needed items for dealing with the ill in the hospitals. India, by adopting a national lockdown, has gone in the other direction. The debate remains unresolved in the US but has been settled — at least for the moment — in India, the other large federal system in the world. India was able to move in the direction of a strong federal government since it is led by a person with pronounced authoritarian trend. This brings me to the second important possible development growing out of the Covid-19 crisis: the trend towards authoritarianism.

History has many examples of how authoritarians took advantage of emergencies such as wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters to consolidate their powers and increase their hold on societies they governed. The most obvious example, of course, is Adolf Hitler but the most recent one is Vladimir Putin who used the war in Chechnya to grab greater power in Russia. The coronavirus has provided the Russian strongman another opportunity to expand his control of the system as well as lengthen the period of his rule. Several other strong leaders have moved in the same direction. Consolidation of power by Hungary’s Viktor Orban is an interesting development. Hungary is a member of the European Union but the Prime Minister disregarded the Union’s strong preference for democracy by moving along several non-democratic routes.

Nearer to home, Narerdra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, also took advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to acquire more powers for himself including placing serious constraints on the freedom of the press and the country’s vast Indian television system. He drew inspiration from the philosophy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, as it is generally referred to and opted for authoritarian rule over the nation of 1.3 billion people. The RSS, established in the 1920s, based itself consciously on the Nazi movement, copying the German party that promoted German nationalism. It adopted the same type of uniform for its “soldiers” — the men wore shorts and brown shirts — and did daily exercises to remain physically fit for battle that could come anytime. Like the Nazis aim to establish a German nation in Germany, the RSS wanted a Hindu nation in India. This approach was called “Hindutva”; according to it there was no place for other religions in the country, particularly Islam. Emboldened by his landslide victory in the elections of 2019 which followed the one in 2014, Modi went openly for creating a Hindu India. The steps taken by him included the withdrawal of Article 370 from the Constitution that had given virtual autonomy to Kashmir, the only Muslim state in the Indian Union. The Constitution was changed to make it difficult for Muslims to gain formal citizenship if they couldn’t prove that they were Indians by birth.

The arrival of Covid-19 gave Modi and his party further space within which to expand their power. They exercised it without restraint and created an India that no longer followed what the historian Sunil Khilnani had called the “ide of India”. That idea was to create and follow political, social and economic systems that did not distinguish between different classes of people — those who subscribed to different religions, were of different castes and spoke different languages. Hindutva believed in “oneness”, not in differences.

As Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations notes in a recent newspaper article, “Autocratic leaders in many nations are using the coronavirus to enhance their powers — to put in place new rules that will be hard to overturn even if the coronavirus is defeated. Many of the new powers have no clear end date. The pandemic will have entrenched these strongmen indefinitely.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2020.

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